How to submit to Literary Magazines

This article was originally written and published to Pigeon Review, a literary and art magazine.

This article is designed and written for new writers looking for publication, but it’s open to everyone. (My article for artists is on the way!) This article is also focused on fiction-based writing, not articles, book reviews, etc.

Finishing a short story is a fantastic moment, one filled with pride and a little trepidation, if you’re anything like me. Because now that it’s done, I want to share it with the world!

Here are a few steps to get you started with publishing.

Step 1: Regular Submission or Contest Submission?

When I finish a short story, my immediate thought is, “Yeah, that’s good enough to win a competition.” Because of this thought, I tend to hang onto my stories until I find the perfect competition.

I cannot tell you how highly I discourage this practice.

By hanging onto the stories, I don’t allow myself to fail (learn), or discover the niche that I might inhabit. Additionally, I won’t get published if I never submit, or only submit to competitions.

That all being said, if you have a piece of writing you think is absolutely phenomenal, something that is easily worth the three thousand dollar prize, and you’re okay with entry costs, let that story be your “competition entry” story.

Step 2: Finding the right publication

Assuming we’re talking about general publication, how do you find where to submit it?

Worry not! There are lists!

One of the more popular ones is Duotrope which has a cost associated with it, but not all cost money. I personally use pw.org (Poets and Writers) and Literarium. A quick google search will give you a plethora of lists on which literary magazines to submit to.

The smart thing to do is to read back copies of the magazine you want to submit to. This gives you an idea for the kind of writing they tend to publish. This also helps support the magazine if you buy the copies!

Of course, you may have spotted the small problem here. There are hundreds of literary magazines, and each of them wants you to [ideally] purchase a few back issues to read and get familiar with. Cost aside, the time needed is astonishing. I love reading. I read nightly. I read everything I can get my hands on. But hundreds of back copies across a hundred different literary journals is a huge time commitment.

I’m not urging you to not read back issues. But use your time wisely. If you’re writing hard sci-fi, then yes, give a look to some of the previously published work and see if there is any hard sci-fi. It’s probably best not to send a book review to a publication that doesn’t publish book reviews. If you’re an erotica writer, double check before you send! This all goes hand-in-hand with understanding the guidelines.

Step 3: Understanding the guidelines (and following them)

Most of the time, guidelines are quick and to the point, the dos and don’ts laid out simply. This is usually where the preferred wordcount is found, along with the genres that aren’t accepted. Sometimes, guidelines can get a little complicated with the terms, here’s a little help with three of the most common terms.

Simultaneous Submissions: This refers to sending the same story to multiple magazines. Look carefully at each magazine, some don’t like simultaneous submissions and prefer you only send your story to them. (On a personal note, I don’t like to submit to these places. Having one of my pieces tied up with one journal doesn’t make me too happy.)

Multiple Submissions: This refers to sending multiple stories to the same journal. Again, some journals encourage it, some don’t care either way, and some ask that you only send one at a time.

Reprints: Rarely, a journal will take previously published work, or “reprints.” This is more commonly seen in anthologies where they want to re-publish authors works. Normally, a journal will prefer previously unpublished work.

Before you send your work in, double-and-triple-check the guidelines.

Not following the guidelines is the easiest way to have your work ignored, unread, or unpublished.

Not following the guidelines is the easiest way to have your work ignored, unread, or unpublished. Most literary magazines get hundreds of submissions a month and if you don’t take the time to properly format your story, remove the indents, change the font, or do whatever it is they’re asking of you, there’s a good chance they won’t take the time to read your story. It also shows the literary magazine you aren’t serious about your time or theirs, and worse, it shows you aren’t serious about your work. Literary magazines don’t want to publish someone who doesn’t take the craft seriously, especially when the other people they publish clearly take the craft seriously.

Step 4: Know your rights

The worst thing that could happen, in theory, is you get published (yay!) and make a little money (yay!!) but accidently sell the exclusive rights to that story (no yay). Most magazines won’t attempt to outright strip you of your rights. It’s usually a bit of oversight on the part of the writer and a poorly placed “rights” section by the magazine. Still, as a writer, you’ll want to avoid this.

Luckily for you, in most countries in the world, a creator’s rights are fairly well protected, even if something were to happen. Let’s talk about what some of those rights are.

First: The right for the publisher to be the first to publish your piece. This is what Pigeon Review (the journal I wrote this article for) and most publications will ask for.

Serial: The right for the publication to publish your piece in a printed magazine.

Online: Same as serial, but for a publication to publish your piece online. Pigeon Review also asks for this.

Quick pause- Normally you will see two of the three above together, if not all three. Publications usually ask for “First Serial” or “First Online” or even “First Serial/Online” rights. They want to be the first to publish it, and they’re telling you where it will appear.

Territory (USA/Africa/World/etc.): Some publications will ask for territory-specific rights. This gives them the right to publish your work in either a specific country, continent, or the world. Even if an organization has multiple branches around the world, they can only publish in the places they were given the rights to. This becomes gray area when the subject of “previously published” comes up. If you have a piece published in North America and now you want to enter it in a British competition, but they don’t allow previously published work, reach out and see if they consider it “previously published” if it happened in a different territory.

One time: When the publication wants to publish your work once. If a publication wants to re-publish you work in an anthology, or a “best of” collection, they would have to ask for permission.

Archival: When a publication wants to store your work for reprinting later. This means they will have your work even if it doesn’t appear in print or on their website. Be careful when giving away this right as some publications take it to be exclusive rights. What are those?

Exclusive/non-exclusive: Exclusive rights are when you sign over the rights to a publisher that make the piece of work exclusive to them (think of a novel). Non-exclusive means you can then publish your work elsewhere after they’ve published it (what usually happens with short stories). Sometimes, a writer’s retreat or residency will ask for the exclusive rights to any work created there as a way of making money to keep the residency going.

Anthology: This is for when a publication wants to print or reprint your work in a collection, like a “best of.” Some writers will have their previously published work appear in anthologies since it loses “value” if it’s been published before.

Audio/Film: Self-explanatory, these are the rights to create an audiobook or film. Unless you’re selling a book to a movie studio, you probably won’t come across someone asking for film rights, but audio rights are more common. Some competitions (notably the Audible competition) ask for audio rights for your story.

By and large, when you sell the rights, even the exclusive rights to your work, you don’t sell the right for the publication to make money from it in other ways than publishing it. They can’t make merchandise, sell the film rights without your approval, or turn it into a Broadway play.

Further Tips

Cover Letters: Cover letters can be important when submitting a story or they can be completely unnecessary. Usually this comes down to the publication and how formal they are. When we get submissions at Pigeon Review, we get everything from personalized notes to generic letters to simply, “Editors, Here’s my story.”

As an editor of a publication, I can’t let a cover letter, no matter how well it’s written, be the deciding factor on whether or not to publish a story. I let the story be the only deciding factor. However, there are other publications out there that won’t read your story without a cover letter.

My advice? Have one ready, but only use it when required. It will save everyone time.

Keeping track of your submissions: I tend to make a spreadsheet of all my submissions. This includes the story I sent, the date I sent it, the amount I paid, and whether or not it was published (so I’ll have a list ready for any anthologies). Duotrope and Submittable have tools that are like this already, but I find it comforting to have one on my computer that I can access whenever I want that is laid out to my specifications. Of course, you can add a website link to where you submitted your tory, the name of the editor, and any other information (like a twitter handle) that you please, but I keep it simple.

Is writing a real job?

Writing is a real job!

Just a little validation for everyone. If you’re like me, then you’ve heard, “Writing isn’t a real job.” something like two hundred and forty-three times in your life. On a certain level, it’s true. Writing is not often a financially stable way to move through life. However, that isn’t what I mean by writing is a real job.

Without disparaging anyone, or their works, writing demands time. It demands patience. I don’t say this in a way that’s meant to sound gatekeeping. In fact, I think everyone can and should write! Everyone has a unique voice, their own perspective, and it can be used to create a compelling story. But there are people who have a good idea, sit down to write (as they last did in college or high school) and are surprised when they can’t. Why?

Because writing is a real job.

Can you expect someone with no construction experience to build stairs? Someone who has never sailed to sail? Other analogies and comparisons? No, right? So why do you expect anyone, yourself included, to be able to bang out a full novel from an idea without having practiced writing?

I’d be dumbfounded. Impressed, but dumbfounded. And it’s that expectation that kills the excitement in so many beginning writers. We’ve all read books, how hard would it be to emulate one?

Very.

Why?

You guessed it. Because writing is a job.

Taking this concept a step further, it’s up to you to treat it like a job. Put in time. Read everything you can get your hands on. Re-write a book you’ve just read. Read some more. And write. Write when you can. Write for an hour a day or a thousand words a day. Write when you don’t want to. And most importantly, write when you aren’t inspired.

If you wait to be inspired before writing, then you’ll never learn the necessary tools to become a writer. Your ideas and inspiration wasted.

If you can treat writing like a job, sit down and stare at a blank sheet of paper for an hour, write even when nothing comes to you, then your ideas and inspiration will flow from your fingertips.

How to return to writing after a break

Taking a break from writing is easy. Returning to writing afterwards is difficult. Like anything else that requires commitment, patience, and dedication, stepping away from writing can feel like sliding down some unseen totem pole (or up, since the best are at the bottom?).

How do you get back into it?

Easy.

Give yourself a break. A different kind of break.

If it’s only been a few weeks, or even a few months since you’ve started writing, you might not have forgotten much, if anything. But if it’s been months? Or even years? Then writing can seem like an impossible battle.

To start, you need to drop any judgement. Of course you’re writing will be rusty. THings will come across as wooden and lifeless. Scenes will lack the shine they previously had. Dialogue will seem like it’s been lifted straight from a 90’s sitcom. At least, this is how it’s been for me. The first thing I do is release all judgement. Sometimes I actually have to tell myself, out loud, there will be no judgement. It doesn’t always work. Sometimes I angrily delete entire pages, sometimes I rework a line over and over again before realizing it won’t fit. And sometimes it’s just laziness. I can’t think, can’t create, can’t put myself in my character’s shoes, so I just toss in something like, “And so the character leaves the store empty-handed, awkwardly waving at the cashier, hoping he isn’t accused of theft on his way out.” because it’s what happened to me earlier that day.

Think of an old car on a winter’s day, maybe a Ford Taurus from the late 90’s, and it doesn’t just start up. You have to wake up, go outside, start it up, go back inside to get dressed, throw on a pot of coffee, drink the coffee, use the bathroom, grab a jacket, then go back outside to where the trusty yet ancient Taurus is almost warm enough to drive. That’s how writing can be. Sometimes you just need to throw something down on a page and come back. Then add something else. Then another few words. Then maybe you go for a walk, maybe a drive, then you come back. I always find doing chores as a great way to turn my mind off to the writing. I find when it’s off, I think of new ideas and new ways to form sentences. When I have a new idea, I go rushing back to the computer, broom in hand.

Lastly, stress. Call me weak. Call me a no-good millennial. Or soft. Call me whatever the hell you want, but I find it nearly impossible to be creative while stressed. On a certain level, it’s physical. (Stop rolling your eyes, Dad.) Stress, on a physical level, is your body invoking the fight-or-flight response. And this is good. In most cases, it’s great. It gets stuff done. But it’s also destructive. Veins and arteries are literally shred by adrenaline passing through, the heart starts to fail, or skip beats. And when the body is stressed, it starts saying things like, “Digestion? You kidding? We don’t have energy for that. We don’t have energy to think, to sleep, to eat or digest, to breathe, and especially not to be creative. We need to move, and keep moving, and why are you stopping? I said move!” Whether we like it or not, we somehow came to the point in which we praise stress. Brag about it.

You got five hours of sleep? Bro, I got four.

You’re working a double today? Nah man, I’m hitting seventeen hours today. Making that money, know what I mean?

I once listened to a Q&A from an author talking about a book she had published, I think it was her fourth. In it, someone asked her about the work life and writing life balance.

The author told this person that when working on her first book she had a day job, two kids to raise on her own, and barely any time to write. And when she did write, it came out poorly. It was a giant, endless circle. Some time later, the man she had been seeing offered to cover the bills and rent for a bit if she wanted to focus on writing. So she did. She was able to finish her first novel in three months. Her second in less than a year. She chalked it up to being stress-free. Stress-free from everything.

I know it’s not possible to find a situation like that. But if you can find a way to remove stress, it will help immensely as you return to writing.

Using Movement or Conflict instead of a Plot

Even if you’ve never written a single word, at some point in your life someone has told you how important a plot is to a story. If you have nothing else, you need a plot.

For architect writers, the writer that meticulously plots out the story down to the very intricate detail, creating a plot is easy. It’s the first brick in a towering foundation.

For myself, maybe it’s because I can’t plot out a story for the life of me, maybe it’s because I’m a discovery writer, someone who likes to just sit down and write, I don’t have very good plots. In fact, I often forget about plots until it’s too late.

By and large, there are seven plots.

  • Overcoming the Monster/Enemy
  • Rags to Riches
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Voyage and Return
  • Rebirth
  • The Quest

Some writers will layer a very thin plot over what is essentially a character story. Others will use wooden, 2D characters to create a compelling and colorful plot.

In a short story, my main focus of writing, I’ve found the plot can be substituted by either movement or conflict.

Both of these can be physical or metaphorical, depending on the story you’re writing. Moving from point A to point B. Getting in a fight. Spiritually learning and bettering oneself. Emotional inner turmoil.

Because there often isn’t enough time or space to create an entire plot, simply using movement or conflict can work to your advantage. Maybe you can’t create an entire plot about overcoming the enemy, but a simple fistfight could replace that. A quest might not fit into a short story, but a story about running to the grocery store and someone or something encountered along the way could replicate it.

While writing short stories, I am always looking for ways to cut down on writing without sacrificing story, and these are two of the ways I’ve found.

 

 

Why it’s important to remove the ‘fluff’ writing

As an editor, I often tell my clients to add more to their story. Most of it are the “how” and “why”s of a story.

“How did they get from Point A to Point B?”

“Why did they go into that room without any reason?”

“Why are they spending hundreds of dollars in this scene when in the last scene they lamented having money troubles. Did they come into money? Are they bad with what little money they have? Were these two parts written at different times and need to be justified with each other?”

On the converse side of this is having too much information. There are a number of ways this can spell disaster in a story.

First, false leads. By providing too much information to your reader you are creating the expectation that the information will be important later. Your reader will now spend time trying to figure out how that information plays into the story, and they’ll feel the information was misleading if it doesn’t matter in the end (in the sense that the extra/unnecessary information you provided doesn’t change the story if it’s ultimately removed.

Second, fatigue. Writing, and by relation, reading, is a fine balance of growing more tired and countering that with excitement from the book. Having too much fluff in a book or story that isn’t pertinent to the story creates fatigue in the reader but doesn’t offer excitement as a cure.

Third, and last, it might give the impression of bad writing. Saying, writing, too much comes across as not knowing where to end the sentence or the story.

It’s far easier in a short story than a novel to remove unnecessary writing, things that change the story in no way whatsoever. In a novel, some writing that seems unnecessary on first glance can actually have color and flavor in it that builds the characters. It’s hard to know without having an editor or beta reader to look over your work and provide feedback.